Rachel de Queiroz (kay-ee-RAWSH) is regarded as a significant voice of neoregionalism in Brazil and as a protofeminist writer. She was born in the capital city of the state of Ceará in Brazil’s northeastern region, the setting of most of her fiction. After the great drought of 1915, her family moved to Rio de Janeiro and then to Belém do Pará. Returning to Fortaleza, she graduated from a Catholic girls’ school in 1925 and two years later began work as a journalist. Throughout her career she has written crônicas, the Brazilian genre of commentary, social observation, or sketches of life and customs. At the age of twenty, Queiroz published her first novel, which received a national book award. Like many intellectuals of the day concerned with social issues, she had a brief association with the Communist Party (1931-1933) and faced imprisonment for expressing her ideas. In the late 1930’s Queiroz moved permanently to Rio de Janeiro, but she continued to make annual visits to the family ranch in the interior of Ceará. In recognition of her defense of the disadvantaged she was chosen to represent her country at the 1966 United Nations Commission on Human Rights, after which she joined the Federal Council of Culture. In 1977 she became the first woman to be elected to the Brazilian Academy of Letters.
Queiroz is noted for her profound understanding of the language, landscape, and human drama of northeastern Brazil. The second generation of Brazilian modernism, which included such authors as Jorge Amado, was characterized by the nationally focused social novel of the 1930’s. As a member of this generation, Queiroz sought to bring pressing issues to light in honest examinations of conditions in her land of birth. Themes of social conflict, poverty, and forced migration structure Queiroz’s fiction. The physical and mental suffering caused by drought is examined in O quinze (fifteen, or 1915), which is based on firsthand acquaintance with the people and places of the backlands and cities affected by the drought. In the face of wretched situations Queiroz avoids defeatism, preferring to portray the stoicism of the people. In João Miguel (John Michael) she turns to the social psychology of violence in the backlands. The novel is a study of a protagonist who is imprisoned for murder. Caminho de pedras (road of stones), more historically oriented, presents the persecution of political dissidents and organizers. Queiroz examines, in a provincial situation, stages of development, class structure, and relations of power. While less distinguished than her fiction, Queiroz’s dramatic works also concern the problematic Northeast. Social banditry and heroic folk verse emerge in a play based on the life of a famous renegade, Lampião. A beata Maria do Egito (Saint Mary of Egypt) relates hagiological legend to parallel circumstances in Brazil.
Queiroz is also known for her treatment of women’s issues, which are in varying degrees important in all of her fictional works. The protagonist of O quinze is a young woman who strives for an independent position in the midst of general crisis. The oppression of women is also taken up in the social portrait of Caminho de pedras. Such issues are at the fore of Queiroz’s two works which have appeared in English. The protagonists of The Three Marias confront life in the fictional present through reminiscences about adolescent experiences in a convent school. The novel details their attempts to deal with current frustrations and to come to terms with their sexuality and their roles as citizens, mothers, and spouses. Queiroz addresses the inadequacies of the educational system, especially with regard to women, the inequalities of male-female relations, and the difficulties of emancipation. In Dôra Doralina a retrospective narrative technique is again adopted. The heroines’ trajectories are presented in three “books,” or stages of life, as the relations of mother, daughter, and a male figure are examined....
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